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Hurricane Andrew Knocked Down Social Barriers, Too

December 26, 1992

PERRINE, Fla. (AP) _ ″Dinner is ready 3/8″

Al Zapata and his teen-age son Hernan, hammering away at their hurricane- shredded roof, looked at each other and then down below. Jean Schardt, a neighbor he barely knew, was beckoning.

″They were calling us. This is a moment I will never forget in my life,″ Zapata said.

Within minutes, the Zapatas were sitting down to a spaghetti dinner and encountering new friendships and new feelings about their home.

″It’s completely different now,″ Zapata said during a recent evening gathering of four families at the Schardts’ home.

In Perrine and other suburban communities like East Kendall, Naranja Lakes and Country Walk, Hurricane Andrew brought down more than roofs, trees and light poles. Social barriers also fell. Next-door strangers became friends.

″Even though the people didn’t know each other, they were running out and hugging each other,″ said 11-year-old Alexis Graber. ″That surprised me. It wasn’t like what everybody was doing before. Now there’s a feeling of neighborhood.″

″It’s not that these communities have had any identity,″ said Peter Muller, a University of Miami geography professor and expert on suburbs.

He said the southern Dade County suburbs, situated as much as 10 miles inland, away from the cooling sea breezes, began booming decades ago as central air conditioning became more common. Most residents commute to work and spend little time in their communities.

″We had lived there for six years and never knew our neighbors,″ said Gary Pratt, a retired utility company employee who lives with his wife, Carolyn, in Leisure City.

But after the Aug. 24 storm, the neighbors got their electricity back first and brought over baked beans and fried chicken. ″Then they found out my favorite is homemade peanut butter cookies and brought some,″ he said.

Four months after the hurricane, Pratt decided not to replace the blown- away wooden fence that separated his property from Liz and Jim Randall’s.

On the block in Perrine, the Schardts’ home became ″sort of a general telephone station the first couple of days,″ Schardt said, because their phone was still working and neighbors streamed in to let relatives know they were safe.

With the electricity knocked out, children came outside to play together for the first time. Parents taught them the games of their childhoods - tag, hide-and-seek, charades. The adults spent hours talking together, no longer reluctant simply to go knock on their neighbors’ door for a visit.

The Schardts held nightly block dinners cooked on their gas grill. Neighbors traded tools and took turns driving 20 to 30 miles away in search of open stores to buy supplies for all.

Jim Anson’s backyard pool became the place to cool off.

Anson, 53, brought a 10-pound bag of shrimp home for a dinner and savored getting to know his neighbors. ″I had kind of been in my own world. Everybody was going their own way,″ he said.

Zapata, a 43-year-old business consultant, said his family had felt like outsiders since they moved here from Uruguay more than a year ago.

″It’s a big country. Everybody was like a number,″ he said. Their home was ″like an island,″ with his wife, Teresa, and three children staying inside, protected by a security system and guard dogs.

But the friendships that have developed have changed his family’s attitude. His 6-year-old, Federico, is suddenly inseparable from 6-year-old neighbor Zachary Graber.

″Feddie had been suffering the many changes,″ Zapata said. ″Now he is telling us he will stay here forever.″

Amid all the new warmth, Alexis Graber, the 11-year-old, wondered, ″When everybody gets cable TV back, will we go back to the way it was before?″

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